Fishbourne director retires – a history of the palace.

The Chichester Observer marks David Rudkin's retirement with an account of Fishbourne Palace in the 20th century.

THIS week sees the retirement of David Rudkin, the director of Fishbourne Roman Palace.
David was director for 29 years, during which time the education department was expanded, a new wing for conservation, storage and visitor events was built and a new roof was put over the mosaics.

He has also been a good friend to the Record Office, and indeed to Fishbourne itself, where he was involved in the millennium celebrations, and he wrote most of the chapter on the Romans in The Fishbourne Book.

In May, the palace will be celebrating 40 years of being open to the public.

The beginning of the modern story of the Roman Palace is usually cited as 1960, and the story of workmen digging a trench for some water pipes and coming across a mosaic is now world-famous.

However, its origins go further back – pieces of pottery and tile have been found in that area of the village for centuries, and an early name for the place, Fittenhall Field – Field of the Fallen Hall – may reflect what lay under the surface.

Fishbourne villagers were involved in the excitement of the 1960 find, and the archaeological excavations.

What was it like to be on a dig which gradually became world-famous? Here Mary Hand gives her account:

“The Roman Palace site was excavated largely by volunteer amateurs who, over the years, came in their hundreds from all over the UK as well as from France, Germany, Yugoslavia and the United States.

“In some years, at any one time, the team was as large as 70.

“In the 1960s the British Council for Archaeology sent out details of excavations requiring labour.

“Mostly volunteers paid their own expenses but for Fishbourne there was the added inducement in some seasons of a £1-a-day subsistence allowance and
basic accommodation – camp beds and sleeping bags in the disused cinema in Eastgate Square.

“Fishbourne was especially popular not just for the grandeur of the palace but also from 1962 because of the presence of the Festival Theatre.

“The work was six days a week, starting at 9am and finishing at 6pm with set lunch and tea breaks.

“Tools had to be cleaned each evening and carefully stacked away, and discipline with regard to the trenches, and who went where and did what, was very firm.

“The work was varied. Some volunteers used trowels and toothbrushes to clean up delicate artefacts.

“Others, particularly in the early days, used pickaxes and shovels to dig down to just above the remains. Then it was important to take off layer by layer, mapping and labelling anything significant before it was put in labelled collection trays and sent off to be cleaned and catalogued.

“At the end of the season, when all the photographs and records had been taken, they had to cover up the site again with soil for protection until the diggings could be properly protected and put on permanent public display.”

David quotes a story that on the last day of the 1961 summer excavation, in the final hours, the archaeologists cut a new trench, on the suggestion of Barry Cunliffe, and came across the famous Cupid on a Dolphin mosaic.

For the residents of Fishbourne, the digs became regular summer entertainment for visitors.

For some of them, such as the Blakeney and Cundall families, the digging extended to their back gardens.

Both families had houses on what is now the A259 going through the village, and a bath block which actually pre-dated the building of the palace was found in the gardens of both houses.

In winter, the archaeologists dug in the snow, and were served so
up by Rita Blakeney – the author of the book on the history of Fishbourne – and sherry and drinks parties aided summer digs.

In 1965, the excavations were on the programme This Week in Britain intended for overseas audiences, and their walled garden was used to show a ‘tea-party’ – which actually took place at 9am!

For the villagers, the size and importance of the excavations added to their social life.

The Record Office has film of early digs, and typescript extracts from a journal by one of the diggers, GP Burstow.

Further reminiscences by residents and diggers may be found in The Fishbourne Book, edited by Mary Hand, and available at the Record Office and the Library Service, although it is out of print.

For the complete picture, David Rudkin has written an informative account of the history of the palace, and its present activities in Chapter 17 of the book.

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